Local grievances fuel Kenyan massacres

June 18, 2014

It is logical, but far too easy, to blame the Somali-based militant Islamic group al-Shabaab for massacres in two Kenyan coastal communities on Sunday and Monday in which close to 100 people were killed.

It’s logical because the attacks on the town of Mpeketoni and the nearby village of Majembeni fit into a pattern of about 100 revenge terrorist attacks by al-Shabaab since the Kenyan military invaded Somalia in 2011 to help other regional forces dislodge the Muslim extremists. The most high-profile of these was last September’s terrorist attack on the upmarket Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in which at least 67 people died.

But, despite al-Shabaab’s claim of responsibility for these latest attacks close to the coastal tourist Mecca of Lamu, domestic political struggles, especially for control of land, look to be a far more likely reason for the bloodshed.

Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya. Official Kenya government photo

Indeed, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said on Tuesday, the massacres were the work of “local political networks” and not al-Shabaab.

“The attack in Lamu was well planned, orchestrated and politically motivated ethnic violence against a Kenyan community,” Kenyatta said in a televized address to the nation. “Evidence indicates local political networks were involved.”

In many ways it is surprising that Kenyatta is drawing attention to the rampant domestic insecurity that afflicts Kenya, and is not taking the easy route of blaming al-Shabaab. It is surprising too because that strand of thought leads quickly to his administration’s preferential treatment, especially in granting access to land, of his own tribe, the Kikuyu, which make up about 17 per cent of the country’s population of 44 million people.

And that string soon leads to Kenyatta himself, who, according to many accountings, owns about 500,000 acres (202,343 hectares or over 2,000 square kilometres) of prime Kenyan farmland. Forbes magazine has put Kenyatta’s personal wealth at over $500 million, much of it acquired by his father, Jomo Kenyatta, who led the country’s drive for independence from the British and then snapped up much of the land left by the departing colonial settlers. The land was meant to be allocated to local land-less farmers, but that’s not the way things have worked in post-colonial Africa in the last half century. In Zimbabwe, for example, it was not landless peasants who benefited from President Robert Mugabe’s brutal expulsion of white farmers. It was Mugabe and his cronies who took the farms.

Like much of Kenya’s coastal region, Mpeketoni and the Lamu area are predominantly Muslim after centuries of intercourse, in all meanings of the word, with the Arab states just to the north-east.

For decades, the economy of the region has bounced along catering to the high end European and North American tourist market. However, the prospects of an end to civil war in oil-rich Sudan to Kenya’s north-west, and of development in land-locked Ethiopia to the north, are putting huge pressures on the Lamu region.

A major element in the Kenyatta government’s Vision 2030 development project is what is called the Lamu Port and South Sudan Ethiopia Transport corridor (LAPSSET). This involves road, rail and pipeline development, and an essential element of this project is the development of Lamu Port. This is being financed by China, which has major interests in the oil reserves of the new country of South Sudan.

Predictably, this project has led to a boom in land prices and in speculation. This has exacerbated a long-simmering problem in Mpeketoni, where there has been a steady influx of Kikuyu people since independence in 1963. The Mpeketoni locals are mostly Bajuni, a Muslim people originally from islands off the coast of Somalia. They have complained long and bitterly about the ease and regularity with which the immigrant Kikuyu get title to land the Bajuni believe belongs to them. The ethnic frictions have become more harsh and intense with speculation sparked by the LAPSSET project, and Kenya’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission is investigating the allegations by the Bajuni of illegal land allocation by the National Land Commission.

That said, there was probably al-Shabaab involvement in this week’s massacres with planning and facilitation if nothing else.

In accusing “local political networks” and an “opportunist network of other criminal gangs,” President Kenyatta has tried obliquely to put the blame on his political opposition, led by former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. That’s a dangerous tactic because it focuses attention on the history of bloody rivalry between the two men, and the continuing high levels of insecurity in Kenya, which has root causes in ineffectual government.

Over 1,200 people were killed in widespread mob attacks after the 2007 elections, which Odinga lost in a blatantly fraudulent vote. Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, still face charges at the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes against humanity for their roles in that bloodshed.

The slaughter was not repeated when Odinga lost the 2013 election, but he still thinks Kenyatta stole power by fraud and is promising mass protests starting next month.


Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com 

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